By Jim Churchill
You remember that old slogan for the Maine State Lottery – “just imagine!” As we head into another basketball season for the UMaine men, I find myself doing just that. I can’t help but think of what could have been.
The Black Bears are coming off an 8-22 season. Nothing special for sure, but in contrast to a 3 win season in Bob Walsh’s first year when the cupboard was quite bare, you could see the beginnings of a building process. You could see a core of young talent that could be built around and supplemented.
That is how programs are rebuilt. You start with some talented pieces, they grow and develop as players and leaders. More pieces are added each year until a talented, well-rounded and deep roster is consummated and the program can compete for a conference title.
The UMaine men were at about stage 2.5 of the rebuild at the end of last season. Yes, the Bears finished with a nine game losing streak and that disappointing record, but you had hope. You could see a foundation and the walls were going up.
Guards Aaron Calixte and Kevin Little came on board in 2014. Last season forwards Isaac Vann and Devine Eke joined the Maine program. Transfer guard Wes Myers and big man Vincent Eze were waiting in the wings for the 2016-2017 season. Myers had to sit out a year after transferring from Niagara and Eze was red-shirting. Maine Gatorade Player of the Year Andrew Fleming was also committed to UMaine.
Then, the chips began to fall. Literally.
Vann, Maine’s leading scorer with Player of the Year abilities, took his talents to VCU. Little, the conference’s fourth leading scorer, left the Maine program for Colorado State. Eke, who was a rebounding and shot-blocking presence, is now part of the Rider basketball program.
I understand transfers are a reality in college basketball and hundreds were executed in the last year. However, I doubt there were many schools, if any, that had to endure three significant defections.
Maine has a long history of quality players transferring out of the program. Remember Rick Carlisle and Champ Godbolt departing in the early 80’s? Skip Chappelle sure does. More recently, the talented Justin Edwards and Murphy Burnatowski left for very different reasons. Edwards transferred to Kansas State while Burnatowski went on to Colgate after two seasons in Orono.
Back to my imagination and the 2016-2017 Black Bears. I am imagining Little, Myers and Calixte in a veteran and dynamic guard rotation backed up by Ryan Bernstein. I see Vann, Eke, Eze, Fleming and Ilija Stojiljkovic providing a young and mobile front court. Ah, what could have been with that 9-man rotation.
Could that group compete for a title in a down year for the conference? Maybe. Could they get the UMaine program to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever? Maybe. Or maybe they would need one more year and one more player. In either case, the Black Bears would be three players ahead.
You never know, but you can imagine! Guess I’ll go buy a lottery ticket.
This is not a championship caliber edition for Maine, but possibly a more mature group where the sum of the parts adds up and the Bears can pull off a few surprises. Maine competed fairly well with a very good Virginia Tech team from the ACC on Friday night. The Bears fell to the Hokies 80-67, but impressed those in attendance with their effort and team play. Maine is at Longwood on Sunday.
Jim Churchill is the host of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.